Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

North Korea talks: 'Both sides want the impossible' and do not agree on what denuclearisation means, experts warn

'It means the removal of the threat posed by us, not them,' says former US State Department official

Jon Sharman
Monday 09 April 2018 23:17 BST

Talks between the US and North Korea are not the potential breakthrough Donald Trump has suggested because Pyongyang has a different definition of denuclearisation, experts have warned.

Details about the proposed negotiations remain sparse after US officials said on Sunday that Pyongyang had delivered a direct message about its willingness to discuss the issue if and when Mr Trump meets Kim Jong-un.

“The US has confirmed that Kim Jong-un is willing to discuss the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” a senior administration official said. The Trump White House has long said that if the North Koreans were not ready to discuss halting their nuclear programme, the two countries could not negotiate.

There are questions, however, about how North Korea defines denuclearisation, which Washington and Mr Trump regard as Mr Kim’s regime abandoning its atomic weapons programme.

“It means the removal of the threat posed by us, not them,” according to Evans Revere, a former senior US State Department official.

Mr Revere told The Washington Post: “It’s been defined as this for us on many occasions. My conclusion is this is not new.

“Various outlets are describing this as a major breakthrough on North Korea’s commitment toward denuclearisation. It’s no such thing.”

North Korea has said over the years it may consider giving up its nuclear arsenal if the US removes its troops from South Korea and withdraws its so-called nuclear umbrella of deterrence from South Korea and Japan.

The US has maintained a significant military presence in the region for decades, with thousands of troops stationed in South Korea and further bases on Okinawa and Guam. It also uses its aircraft carriers to project power in the western Pacific.

Before the recent apparent thaw in tensions North Korea regularly lambasted joint US military exercises with Seoul and Tokyo as preparations for war.

The Post said US officials spoke with caution about the latest offer, which reportedly included no detail of Pyongyang’s negotiating position.

James Edward Hoare, associate fellow of Chatham House’s Asia-Pacific programme and a former UK diplomat, told The Independent that weakening Washington’s foothold in the region may be Pyongyang’s aim in the “long, long term”.

He added: “Both sides want the impossible. The North Koreans will be prepared to make some sort of concessions, there’s no doubt about that. You’re not going to get rid of it all. That may not suit Mr Trump or his administration. ‘And what are you going to give us in return?’ will be the next question.

“They want absolute security, as does the US, and no country has absolute security so everybody is bound to be somewhat disappointed.”

Full denuclearisation in North Korea could be “impossible to guarantee” because “you don’t know what’s there. You’re not going to destroy the knowledge that they have”, he said.

Donald Trump says he 'believes' North Korea leader Kim Jong Un about peace talks

In March Mr Trump said that a “deal with North Korea is very much in the making and will be, if completed, a very good one for the world”, having accepted on the spot an invitation to meet Mr Kim relayed by South Korean officials.

On Monday he told reporters the encounter would take place in late May or early June.

“I think there’ll be great respect paid by both parties and hopefully we’ll be able to make a deal on the de-nuking of North Korea,” the US president said at the beginning of a cabinet meeting. “They’ve said so. We’ve said so,” he added. “Hopefully, it’ll be a relationship that’s much different than it’s been for many, many years.”

But a lack of preparation and regional expertise – with key officials missing from the State Department’s roster – could hamper a US negotiating team going up against North Koreans with long experience, Mr Hoare told The Independent.

He said: “They are tough negotiators. They will go through everything in fine detail and they are very legalistic. You’ve got to know what you are doing.

“I think the US is very convinced of its own power and its authority in the world, but the North Koreans have been playing great powers off against each other for a long time.”

After watching the demise of Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, Pyongyang is unlikely to say “OK, we’ll trust you” to the Americans, he said.

Mr Trump’s swift acceptance of the proposed meeting could also cause problems, Mr Hoare said. “There is a danger of talking past each other in such circumstances. That is one reason why you normally set up such high-level meetings after an awful lot of preparation.

“The two sides haven’t any idea what the bottom line would be for the other.”

Another former US diplomat, Christopher Hill, who negotiated with the North during the George W Bush administration, told the Post that Pyongyang knows what the US wants.

He added: “The question is when and how and what they want in return for it. If the notion is denuclearisation where you take all the forces that threaten them off the Korean peninsula, it’s not going to work.

“If they have in mind the sorts of things on offer in 2005 – energy assistance, economic assistance, cross recognition of states, a peace treaty – we’re in business. But at this point, we just don’t know.”

Colin Alexander, a political communications lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, agreed that a military draw-down by the US and its allies would be a key goal for North Korea, and a prerequisite for denuclearisation.

He told The Independent: “A country like North Korea would rather not put so much of its national energies into the creation of nuclear deterrents as this results in the perceived need for significant state propaganda operations to continually convince North Korean citizens of the threats posed by the outside world and why their government must prioritise this rather than aspects of social welfare or economic development.

“To this end, the only way that the Kim regime would consider denuclearisation would be if substantive guarantees were provided by the United States and its allies.

“These would include, first, a guarantee of the security of the regime itself. Second, the decline of military intimidation by the US and its allies in the region. And third, the diminishing of the pro-capitalist rhetoric led by the US that North Korea considers to be imperialistic and an attempt to dilute the traditional Korean culture that has been the mandate of the Kim dynasty to protect.”

Additional reporting by agencies

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in